Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Greece: The reign of the Athamanian Mountains

In the heart of Epirus, in northern Greece, the mountains spread out their ancient, unshaken and imposing kingdom.. 

By Kon Hans

Leaving behind the faceless chaos of the city the road becomes a path in the serenity of the mountains. The vivid colours of spring make up the dress in which nature chooses to flirt with the brilliant sun as it rises in the blue horizon.  Here, you can hear your thoughts whispering at the rhythm of the small crystal clear streams all around; you are alone, as a child that slowly finds its way to the embrace of his mother. 

Nature is everything; she is your existence and your god, your mother and father, the cord that still unites you with the vast, inexplicable universe.  You need to breathe the oxygen and smell the humid wood, to let the soil caress your palms as you pick it up and let it in the wind to become earth again. You need to let down your defences that the urban life has provided you with, when you first entered the mechanical entrails of the City.  You need to feel the breeze of time at your cheek, just to realise the enormous illusion we live in; you need to let go in order to be free.  Only then, you can admire the brilliant work of nature, the masterpiece of existence in which you are just an insignificant speck; the sea of mountains, ancient, unyielding, imposing are there to remind you just that, your fragile and yet unique and beautiful existence.

The Athamanian Mountains

Tzoumerka mountains in Epirus, north Greece (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 

In the heart of Epirus, in northern Greece, the mountains spread out their ancient, unshaken and imposing kingdom.  Others are gigantic, with lazy outlines and covered in their deep green cloak, while others are bare, with abrupt and rough slopes as they rip the deep blue sky with their peaks, and all of them embellish the backbone of the vast mountain range of Pindos.  None of them, however, hold the wild, unblemished and proud beauty of the “Athamanian  Mountains” or else “Tzoumerka”mountains, rising high like the sanguine teeth of a mythical dragon  as the last rays of  a red dying sun embrace their bare peaks.

In their fringes they have allowed the human presence even from the ancient times, (the ancient tribe of “Athamanians”) and thus now, centuries afterwards, a lot of villages, called “Tzoumerkohoria” (which means “the villages of Tzoumerka mountains”), unfold under their shade and in their slopes while their proud inhabitants look far beyond, to their sea of mountains as it fades in the horizon. The land is harsh, made from stone and oak, and the people that inhabit it are harsh and together they are locked in a primordial struggle trying to tame one another, signs of which can be seen in the arid fields, the ravines, the stony watering holes.  All around, the virgin nature engulfs in its suffocating embrace the labours of men but her call is irresistible: the perfume of the lotus and the humid timber, the live red of the dogwood and the yellow of the loquat, they all call to you: to leave behind the streets of the city until they become no more than a shadowy path in the wild vegetation.

Unique villages and stunning sites

More mountains (photo by Aris Hantzopoulos)
However, after you decide to follow nature’s call, you should know that the access to this region is relatively difficult, the road network is unfinished and the roads in many points are hard to traverse (mainly in winter), which partly explains why these hidden diamonds remain hidden from the domestic and international tourism; in any case, rest assured your efforts will pay off. You can reach Tzoumerka either coming from Arta and Ioannina, or coming from Trikala, as it is relatively easy to find the road for the bigger villages, such as Pramanta or Agnanta and from there continue to explore.

 The “Tzoumerkohoria” are roughly about 47 villages, stretching out between the 
Agios Dimitrios church in Ramia village (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
Municipalities of Arta and Ioannina, a region which is constituted henceforth by the Municipality of Central Tzoymerka with its seat in Voulgareli village and the Municipality of Northern Tzoymerka with Pramanta village as its seat.  All of them are beautiful villages, each one with a separate quality, others are pretty small and remote while others are big and more accessible; others are deep inside the pines and others next to gurgling waters, others with alleys and masterfully crafted stone mansions while others spread out in the slopes and in the gorges; all of them, however, possess an authentic mountainous character.  You can drink a coffee in the beautiful square in Voulgareli looking at the view from above or a “tsipouro” (strong alcoholic drink) in the warm and traditional refreshment pavilion in Ramia’s square or you can wander around in the stone alleys of Syrrako and Kalarrytes, admiring the unique architecture of the twin Vlach villages – many regard them as the most beautiful mountainous villages in Greece.

You can savour the marvellous roasted lamb and goat kid in Hosepsi (or Kypseli) or in the bigger villages such as Agnanta and Pramanta, where there the culinary options are even more, or you can admire the grandeur of the forces of nature as they materialize in the deafening roar and the vast crystal column of the biggest waterfall in the country, in the village of Katarraktis (which of course in Greek means “waterfall”!) In addition, just opposite of the village and situated on an evergreen hill you can find the “Kedros -Dasiko Horio” (Forest Village), a complex with beautiful houses and villas of traditional architecture ready to warmly welcome you and accommodate you.

The famous Bridge of Plaka (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
The choices are really endless, and since the region has started, in the past few years, to attract tourist interest,-though at a snail's pace still-, you will find other appreciable rooms to let and hotels to stay as you make your exploration trips.  Furthermore, if you want to combine the exploration with the adventure, then in Monolithi, and only a short distance away from the historical and impressive “Bridge of Plaka”, you will find the synonymous modern hotel (“Gefyri tis Plakas”) that can initiate you into the secrets of rafting in a valley of picturesque beauty.  There, you will also find the restored Customs, a historical building that signals where the old borders between the emerging State of Greece and the Ottoman Empire have been; close by,  a lovely traditional hotel is now the bearer of the name and its historic importance (“Teloneio” = “Customs”), where you can warm yourself sitting on the “basia” (traditional low benches) next to its imposing fireplace.

If, on the other hand, you prefer the car - presuming that it possesses good suspensions - then you can use as a base for your expeditions some central village as Pramanta or Agnanta and discover graphical villages and stunning views almost in every turn of the road.  Some of these roads may bring you to the cave of Anemotrypa (“Wind’s Hole”) outside Pramanta, where you can enjoy a magical route of 250m. between underground small lakes and a river, or to the Byzantine RedChurch in Palaiochori, near Boulgareli, built by master stonemasons with stones that have a natural red shade.  If again you fancy walking in the nature, then the options are even more as there are great many paths to explore; however, you must pay attention in the gorges and the abrupt precipices that here are widely known as “stefania”.

In the duration of your journey to the wild beauty of the Tzoumerka villages, you will find that the local cuisine with the exceptional quality of meat and various pies is a guaranteed benefit and even more so regarding its star product, the “tsipouro”:  produced by the local mountain variety of grapes, named “zampela”, it is a strong and pure spirit, with transparent flavour and body that you are sure to enjoy.  Sometimes, engulfed in the silence of nature as the veils of rime cover the sleeping mountains, a tsipouro can ease your thoughts and free your mind as your gaze wanders among this forest of eternal peaks.

(Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on May 11, 2013 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

Tzoumerka mountains (photo by Aris Hantzopoulos) 
A small path.. (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
Local cuisine: natural baked bread in the fireplace (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
Tzoumerka mountains (photo by Aris Hantzopoulos) 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Dubai: a city in the future

Dubai: a city in the future

by Kon Hans

From a fishing village and in just 50 years time, Dubai has turned into a new metropolis of the 21st century

Burj Al Khalifa by day

A familiar red hat and a dazzling smile, the symbols of Emirates Airlines, one of the largest on the planet, will be your first encounter as you embark on your flight that will take you to one of the busiest airports in the world, to the new ultra-modern airport of the rising metropolis of the 21st century, Dubai.

Dubai Mall - exterior

Afterwards, a completely automated metro carriage, on an elevated railway and passing between huge towers made of mirrors and filled with all the colors and races of the world, will leave you by an impressive hotel –they all are! From its window you can contemplate a vast green park giving its way to the golden sand of an exotic beach with palm trees, while the shadow of one of them seems to expand endlessly into the sea materializing into the astonishing "Palm Jumeira" with its residences floating as if on a new Caribbean Sea at the edge of the Arabian Desert.

Wherever you turn your head the development will hit you hard in the face in a “superlative” manner: the world's tallest hotel has just inaugurated, the biggest mall in the world is here again (Dubai Mall) and so is the largest flower garden (Dubai Miracle Garden) in the middle of the desert! If this is not enough then look at the horizon as the colossal “Tower of the Khalif” (Burj al Khalifa) traverses with its shadow the entire Dubai below, like an enormous solar clock indicator. 

Taxes, the non-existent 

Some small towers!

The images are transformed into exceptional experiences that highlight the uniqueness of a metropolis in its blooming. Unrestrained, glamorous, with all the momentum of the future in its foundations, it seems as though nothing can halt its course as it lunges itself into the embrace of the new century with the confidence of a robust economy, a galloping development and a new multicultural identity in its birth.
Dubai, from a small fishing village with a long history as a commercial channel, in just 50 years time has managed to become an international hub of trade, investment and tourism. Its success lies, to a certain extent, on the Emirates' vast oil and gas deposits though the majority belongs to the neighboring Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and at the same time the capital of the seven United Arab Emirates. However, it’s not only the oil responsible for this success: a lot of work lies behind, challenging and innovative decisions had to be made with determination; the "economic miracle" of Dubai is no miracle at all, it is just the result of a logical and methodical planning.

Dubai Mall - interior
The whole Dubai relies on its unhindered growth; it rests with both feet, firmly, on the, - ill famed for many lately - , “free market”, and it can’t be more free: there are no taxes! However the State ensures and pushes this development since the 1980s, attracting investors from all over the world with all possible concessions and facilities, understanding very early the advantages of a recycling market. Thus, the “free zones” are everywhere in Dubai and are very specialized: there exists the Media Zone, the Internet Zone, the Academic Zone and others totaling 20 highly developed areas where trade is booming free from any kind of taxes or customs duties and with State-of-the-art facilities already installed. Amongst them, the pulsating, huge industrial heart of the Emirates, the world's largest industrial zone, “Jebel Ali Free Zone”, stands out with a port and airport included for the faster service of almost 7,000 companies that operate inside! 

Bur Dubai, Karama 

Leaving behind the overactive core of the development of Dubai, which warms up even more its motors to accommodate, with any certainty, the largest convention of investment and trade worldwide, at the EXPO 2020, we are moving towards the "old" Dubai. Here, in Bur Dubai and Karama, the oriental spirit is widespread since the people who build this architectural paradise live here: Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, in their colorful neighborhoods and spicy restaurants have created their own microcosm and have integrated in the local society.

Dubai Museum
They are the labor hands, nonetheless they gaze into the future with optimism; huge complexes with apartments have been built especially for them, as they contribute to the economy as much as anyone else, something that lately you won’t meet in many European developed countries where they live in admittedly worse conditions. The bazaars with the oriental fragrance, the ripe honeyed dates and the scent of cardamom, the strong Indian curry, Chinese lanterns, Filipino shops, gold and spices, colors, flavors, aromas, all coexist effortlessly, beautifully, dynamically in this new hyper-Babel of the desert.

When the time comes, I’ll leave knowing that the huge economic chain of Dubai is well oiled and will continue spinning, as here everybody contributes, others more and others less, resulting in a modern diverse and inclusive culture: nowadays people are arriving by the thousands to this new metropolis, as they believe in its model of development; but that was not possible until after Dubai started believing in itself.

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on February 2, 2013 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

(All fotos by Kon Hans)

And a small video I found on the internet which shows the growth of Dubai in 11 years, from 2000 to 2011, enjoy: http://gizmodo.com/5878930/eleven-years-of-dubais-insane-growth-seen-from-space

Dubai Mall - exterior

The Gate - DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center)

Fountains, Burj Al Arab in Dubai Mall - exterior

Burj Al Khalifa by night

Dubai Mall - interior